Chilly scenes of workplace discord dominate Winter Brothers (Vinterbrodre), a confidently handled, promisingly edgy feature debut from Copenhagen-based, Icelandic writer-director Hlynur Palmason. Built around an offbeat central performance from Elliott Crosset Hove as one of two siblings toiling at a limestone mine in an inhospitably remote corner of Denmark, it picked up the best sctor prize and the Europa Cinemas “Label” kudos when world-premiering at Locarno amid largely positive reactions. Further high-profile festival berths will doubtless be scored.
Palmason hit the bull’s-eye with his second short, 7 Boats (2014), which like Winter Brothers married a distinctive, slightly bygone aesthetic to a claustrophobic, darkly humorous story detailing man’s casual, cruel inhumanity to his fellow man. But the great leap from a 10-minute running time to full feature length proves, not for the first time, to be a tricky one. While impressive in parts, the picture oscillates between the profitably enigmatic and the frustratingly obtuse. As an elaborate, lovingly crafted calling card for Palmason and several of his collaborators, however — even Daniel Imsland’s minimalist opening/closing titles are immaculately designed — it amply passes muster.
MVP on this particular team, most of whom went to film school in Copenhagen together, is the composer Toke Brorson Odin. His clangorous, electronica-heavy musique concrete contributions emerge organically from and near-invisibly blend with the mechanized, sometimes deafening sounds of mine, quarry and factory (hat-tip to sound designer Lars Halvorsen.) These harsh, eerily alien and always shiversomely cold environments are evocatively captured on crisp 16mm in gray and shale-blue tones by cinematographer Maria von Hausswolff.
Her images feature the rounded corners recently seen such acclaimed arthouse titles as Lisandro Alonso’s Jauja, Laszlo Nemes‘ Son of Saul and David Lowery’s A Ghost Story, all of which were shot in (or close to) the “boxy” 4:3 ratio. Winter Brothers, however, is presented in the more conventional 5:3 ratio associated with both 16mm and Super16; Palmason’s choice of analog format proves a good fit for his stark vision of an isolated, quietly nightmarish world, of indeterminate time period, a zone where everyday incivilities can rapidly escalate into bullying and then more sinister, more violent territory.
Palmason is typically less concerned with plotting than with conjuring mood and examining character development in extreme situations. The eponymous siblings are the eccentric, self-absorbed sad sack Emil (Crosset Hove) and the rather more easygoing, beefy and handsome Johan (Simon Sears), their fraternal frictions only spilling over into direct conflict when they vie for the affections of the same woman, Anna (Victoria Carmen Sonne in a marginal, underwritten role).
The staringly intense Emil’s oddball behavior is tolerated to varying degrees by his taciturn, gruff colleagues in the limestone mine, whom he supplies with high-percentage hooch made from chemicals stolen from the premises. Like Emil’s questionable and occasionally toxic moonshine, Winter Brothers is an idiosyncratic, intoxicating brew — with more than a whiff of Roy Andersson — but one that leaves a less-than-satisfying aftertaste.
As Emil’s grip on sanity loosens, the picture detours into hallucinatory and fantasy sequences that seek to place us in the shoes of the neurotic protagonist. Fitfully successful in this regard but pleasing both to eye — Palmason’s background as a photographer is evident in his unnerving compositions — and ear, Winter Brothers dribbles into obfuscation its closing stages but has already confirmed Palmason and company as names to watch.
Production companies: Masterplan Pictures, Join Motion Pictures
Cast: Elliott Crosset Hove, Simon Sears, Victoria Carmen Sonne, Peter Plaugborg, Lars Mikkelsen
Director / Screenwriter: Hlynur Palmason
Producers: Julie Waltersdorph Hansen, Hlynur Palmason
Executive producer: Per Damgaard Hansen
Cinematographer: Maria Von Hausswolff
Production designer: Gustav Pontoppidan
Costume designer: Nina Gronlund
Editor: Julius Krebs Damsbo
Composer: Toke Brorson Odin
Sound designer: Lars Halvorsen
Casting director: Rie Hedegaard
Venue: Locarno Film Festival (Competition)
Sales: Film New Europe, Warsaw (firstname.lastname@example.org)
In Danish and English
No Rating, 92 minutes